Back in mid-October, Jim Williamson was as nervous as an expectant father in a hospital waiting room. Fidgeting in the front row of the John Bassett Theatre in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Disclosure’s executive producer turned his head to scan the audience every 15 seconds. He griped his clipboard tightly, flipping through pages of notes. He crossed and uncrossed his legs, watching his social experiment unfold.
The three ordinary Canadians onstage debated political issues such as health care and military spending. Hundreds of people – armed with placards, fluorescent armbands and streamers – sat in the surrounding seats. They booed, they hissed, they cajoled. Beads of sweat emerged on the foreheads of the trio as catcalls and obscenities interrupted them. The cameras swerved and pivoted to capture the melee, while carefully hiding the man responsible.
The three candidates weren’t really running for prime minister – but it sure looked that way. Disclosure held a cross-country open call and of the hundreds of applicants, these were the ones who made it to the glaring lights and flying accusations. Each went through a one-week crash course in political rigour: image-making, policy-making, campaigning. And this debate was just one aspect of Disclosure’s three-part season premiere, “The Making of a Political Animal.”
As he broke from generic newsmagazine format and veered into reality television territory, Williamson knew he was taking risks. His job, his reputation and Disclosure itself were hanging in the balance. In its third season, the investigative program tried to secure a younger, more “modern” audience. Newsmagazines on Canadian TV have lost half a million viewers over the past few decades – in the 1970s, CBC’s Marketplace racked up approximately 2.5 million viewers, while CTV’s W-FIVE nabbed 1.5 million. The genre’s highly structured, dry style had become stale and the CBC was counting on the highly regarded Williamson to capture a younger audience and perhaps save a dying breed of journalism. But in early April, CBC cancelled the show due to dismal ratings.
When it debuted in November 2001, Disclosure was designed to be a “dynamic investigative program,” very different in style from the CBC’s reliable workhorse, the fifth estate. The show paid more attention to the hosts and their reporting – it was meant to be modern, dramatic and daring. Co-hosted by Winnipeg anchor Diana Swain and CBC icon Wendy Mesley, the program showed initial promise. The hosts interviewed subjects with refreshing candour and the show cut through public relations bafflegab. For instance, in an episode on how business television shows charge for airtime, Mesley got startlingly candid answers from Garth Turner, CEO of Millennium Media Television. He emerged on screen with Nalini Sharma, vice president of content and development, who was there to answer Mesley’s questions. By the end of the interview, however, the irrepressible Turner was delivering monologues on his business ventures, while Sharma nearly disappeared from the frame.
The mandate of the show also called for a transparent look into the workings of journalism. In the first season, stories included Swain and Mesley driving around in a car and Mesley surfing the Internet from her cubicle. “That type of camerawork gave viewers the excitement of reporting,” says The Globe and Mail’s TV critic, John Doyle. “The first season was all about the journalism, the movement, no pauses – but that quickly became annoying.”
Disclosure’s numbers from the pilot season reflected Doyle’s view. The ratings were a disappointing 467,000, compared to 640,000 for the fifth estate and 800,000 for W-FIVE. Instead of concentrating on journalism, Disclosure focused too much on the personalities of the hosts – Mesley the bulldog aggressor, Swain the restrained professional – and not enough on actual issues. Another problem was that Disclosure had no one executive producer, so the show had no identifiable imprimatur. And it faced strong U.S. programming in its time slot and didn’t stand much of a chance of developing an audience.
In Disclosure’s second season, CBC attempted to fix the problems. It appointed Susan Teskey who, as senior executive producer of the fifth estate, helped that program garner four Geminis over six years. She immediately hired 16 people for Disclosure, and Mesley was replaced by veteran anchor Mark Kelley. In addition to Swain and Kelley, she hired Gillian Findlay as a third host. Findlay was a respected correspondent who covered topics like the Palestinian Intifada and the war in Chechnya. The show took a serious turn, less focused on the journalists themselves and more on the issues, without completely dulling the edge. It was more honed visually, but most importantly Teskey sought dramatic, revelatory storytelling without compromising the journalism.
For instance, “Ka-boom!” took on the issue of body checking in minor league hockey. Kelley investigated a nationally approved report that had calculated injuries in both checking and non-checking leagues and posited that there were fewer injuries in checking leagues. Kelley found that the calculations and therefore the conclusion of the report were inaccurate – in fact, just the opposite was true. As a result, newspapers across the country debated the necessity of body checking, and the Canadian Hockey Association distributed an instructional DVD on checking to all minor league hockey associations and changed the rules to restrict checking to children 11 years old and up. With this episode Disclosure met its goal, producing an installment that challenged beliefs and changed the way people thought. Teskey injected a little humour too – she arranged for Kelley to be checked while delivering one of his dialogues. “That show really struck a chord with the public,” says Kelley. “I was at a Springsteen concert a few months afterwards where people recognized me and patted me on the back.”
Disclosure producers became more enterprising. In an episode entitled “Anchors Away,” they looked at Paul Martin’s family and how his company, Canada Steamship Lines, set up shop in places like Liberia and Barbados – countries commonly used as tax havens. Kelley doggedly pursued Martin throughout the segment, travelling from Halifax to Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific. He was unable to get the shipping magnate to agree to an interview, so he ambushed him at a parade. As Kelley valiantly posed questions from the sidewalk, Martin smiled and waved from his float, offering no explanation. “Anchors Away” was ambitious, but the one-sided take left viewers with a skeptical view of Martin rather than a well-rounded perspective.
After taking in the grim fact of the second season’s decline in ratings – to an average of 430,000 – Julie Bristow, CBC’s head of current affairs and weekly programming, told Teskey “a new leadership style was required.” Williamson received the call to replace her in May 2003, with only six months to go before the season premiere. Having seen the inner mechanisms of many shows, the brief lead time didn’t faze him – nor did the declining ratings. He’d been involved in many shows that have historically altered the genre – CTV’s Canada AM in the 1980s, CBC’s The Journal and its successor, The National Magazine, where he briefed Barbara Frum for interviews. He also worked at the fifth estate as senior producer and directed two episodes of Canada: A People’s History, the most popular documentary series this country has ever produced. Mark Starowicz, CBC’s executive producer of network programming and creator of A People’s History, said, “I hold Jim in the highest regard – he’s not only a great journalist, he has the TV skills to create a dramatic show.”
Along with Starowicz, another professional mentor for Williamson was Frum. At The Journal, he recalled briefing the late anchor for interviews, working long into the night, scouring obscure files and amassing pages of information. When he presented his material to Frum, she’d put the pile of research on her knees, look up and ask, “Jim, what’s really going on here? What’s interesting about this?” She taught him to avoid getting bogged down in detail and instead focus on the core – on what really grabs the viewer’s attention. Frum’s tutelage, along with the desire to bring stories to life that Williamson’s father instilled in him, was a good combination for the man appointed to steer Disclosure away from the turmoil of its first two seasons. “All I want is to do something new and original,” he said. “TV needs a good shot in the arm.”
Williamson’s eyes peer out from behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, and there is a passionate spark when he talks about music, politics and history. There’s something about him that seems almost boyish. He talks quickly and softly about his father, a diplomat who went on trips for weeks at a time. He says he would try to imagine the people and places his father was seeing, and then listen attentively to his tales when he returned. “He was able to analyze life elsewhere and explain it to people back home,” Williamson says. “I absorbed some of it, I must have. My desire is to relay this to the public, to show them sides of issues they otherwise might never see.”
Williamson wanted to transform any lingering stodginess into intellectual voyeurism – with a touch of irony – on Disclosure. In two of the first three episodes, the show invited viewers to participate, either in terms of voting (“Political Animal”), or “solving” a staged crime from the couch at home. Williamson boldly gambled that he could increase viewership by engaging them personally and hooking them into tuning in next week. It wasn’t the first time he used the formula. As senior producer of The National, he developed numerous political documentaries involving ordinary Canadian citizens. One was entitled “72 Hours to Spend $5 Billion,” which explored how regular Canadians would spend the Liberal budget surplus. He won a Gemini in 1990 for “At the Lodge,” a documentary that pitted three Canadians against each other in a debate about the Meech Lake Accord. “‘Political Animal’ wasn’t modelled on it in any conscious way,” he said. “I wanted to come at things in a non-conventional way and using real people was the most genuine approach.”
“Political Animal” provided compelling insight into the grooming of politicians. It showed how, after focus group analysis, candidates willingly changed their appearance to appease the public. The viewer was privy to seeing Bridget Pastoor, a 63-year-old nurse from Alberta, pace her hotel room, frantically perfecting her speech. Rick Loewen, an unemployed worker from Winnipeg, grew increasingly impatient with the debate audience. Each candidate also underwent a radical clothing, hair and overall image metamorphosis. While it was fascinating to watch the transformation of real people into political contenders, too much time was dedicated to it. At times the episode threatened to slip into Extreme Makeover territory, the reality show that changes plain Janes into runway models.
Williamson’s Disclosure re-formatted investigative journalism to reflect current pop culture trends. The kind of access viewers had to politicians in “Political Animal” would be impossible during a real election, so he provided the next best thing. It was a daring format reminiscent of This Hour Has Seven Days, a newsmagazine that ran on CBC from 1964 to 1966. Disclosure had a large budget and attempted cutting-edge journalism in a three-item format, much like This Hour. The CBC waited three decades after the demise of This Hour before trying again to reach a younger audience with a newsmagazine. Undercurrents debuted in 1995, and most of its content involved technology and media – how advertisers used classic Bob Dylan lyrics to sell cars, for example, or how much cyberslacking (recreational websurfing and chatting) cost companies. Unlike any other CBC show at the time, Undercurrents used informality and MTV-style camerawork to connect with younger audiences. By the time of the dot-com collapsed in 2000, however, both its substance and style had grown stale, and the show was cancelled in 2001.
Three years into its mandate, Disclosure still seemed like a fresh take on Undercurrents. After “Political Animal,” the show settled into using more journalistic technique and less attention-grabbing trickery. For example, in “Dead Silence,” Gillian Findlay focused on the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Toronto, specifically looking at the role of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The episode had a distinct fifth estate feel – an obvious observation given Williamson’s past – yet offered surprise. Williamson and senior editor Harvey Cashore looked at accusations made by the media against China after the SARS epidemic, how Chinese officials allegedly “covered it up” and “failed” to tell the world about it. Disclosure sent Findlay to find out where the WHO was prior to and during the outbreak, and why more wasn’t done to prevent the spread of the virus. Midway through the segment, the direction completely flipped and took you on an unexpected course. Findlay uncovered startling facts, like how the epidemic festered for two months in rural China before the worldwide outbreak, and how the WHO failed to act. You thought the episode would be about providing more evidence for China’s guilt – the usual media take – yet Findlay’s exposé of the WHO’s mishandling of the illness questioned accepted wisdom.
In another episode, Williamson looked at the issue of forensic testing. The first segment focused on Jim Driskell, whose conviction of murder in 1991 was largely based on three strands of hair found in his van. At the trial, an expert testified that the strands matched the victim’s. Swain looked at various modes of testing, and how our policing systems, are, in some cases, still relying on antiquated methods. Hair comparison testing, for example, is so flawed it has been referred to as “a modern day snake oil.” New tests of the strands have revealed they in fact belonged to three different people. Shortly after the episode aired, Driskell was released on bail after 13 years in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Although Disclosure was not the catalyst for his release, it undoubtedly refreshed the public’s memory and resurrected old information that may have been overlooked.
In the second segment, dozens of people were asked to participate in an experiment designed to test memory. They witnessed a mock shooting and were then asked to single out the culprit – a man they’d seen for less than a minute. When shown photos of all the potential suspects, few could positively identify the perpetrator. Most police forces that Disclosure contacted in Canada still used this method, despite its obvious flaw.
Over the past decade, it has become increasingly difficult to do this kind of investigative journalism well. In the Internet age, any information can get posted, forwarded or sent, which means it is less secure, of variable quality and the sources are questionable. Law and corporate regulation protect sources better than ever – for example, a reporter has to work harder to get the right numbers and the correct people. And if the reporter does find perfect sources, chances are they are adept at answering or dodging questions. “These days, people are highly skilled at not answering,” says Carleton University professor emeritus Dr. Lionel Lumb. “It’s far harder to nail down something.”
Disclosure and Williamson faced many challenges, including the well-established competition: the 29-year-old the fifth estate and the 39-year-old W-FIVE. This past season, the fifth estate had been strong. Its first four episodes focused on compelling issues, like the alleged relationship between Osama bin Laden and the Bushes, and a look at the rising use of anti-depressants. Despite addressing them commendably, the show presented information to a different demographic – an older, more dedicated audience that has watched the show for decades – which left room for Disclosure. This season, W-FIVE included edgier, showier camerawork, indicating that CTV was seeking the elusive younger audience as well. But the CBC had both Disclosure and the fifth estate to appeal to different demographics, while W-FIVE was trying to target all age groups. Plus, critics pointed out its tendency to replicate the U.S.’s 20/20. “W-FIVE has definitely become more sensational,” said television critic Bill Brioux of The Toronto Sun.
The episode on Canadian Michael Bublé, a youthful chart-topping vocalist, clearly demonstrated its broad target audience. In a flimsy attempt to attract both young and old viewers, Bublé was compared not only to Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, but also to Bobby Darin and Paul Anka. W-FIVE was in for a rude awakening if it wanted to pull in big numbers across such a broad demographic.
In its third season, Disclosure drew an audience of 350,000, down almost 120,000 from its initial year. The CBC cancelled the program only two months after axing current-affairs show counterSpin.
Williamson had wanted to reverse Disclosure’s sliding audience numbers and “change the modus operandi of journalism.” He believed a show like the fifth estate had become more epic. “They have collaborative projects that can only be done on a big scale,” he said. “Disclosure is different because it takes creative chances.”
Neil Docherty, a long-time producer at the fifth estate, believed Williamson’s adherence to mandate was essential. “Disclosure is a serious attempt at a newsmagazine with a more modern feel,” he said. “Undercurrents developed the modern format, but its main problem was its undefined mandate.”
Dr. Lumb said that CBC hasn’t quite figured out how to reach a younger audience, and its cancellation of Undercurrents in 2001 may have been premature. “Disclosure is CBC’s attempt to maintain the aggressive in-your-face style of Undercurrents,” he said. “CBC didn’t want to lose any audience, so they introduced it right away. Too onerous a responsibility was put onto Disclosure, and that’s why it didn’t meet anyone’s expectations. That’s why it didn’t get the numbers they wanted.”